A group representing the struggling Bering Sea crab industry is blasting the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) for denying a request to close two red king crab areas to fishing.

The Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers petitioned NOAA to halt harvesting in what are known as two red king crab "savings areas" to fishing gear through June, following only the second time in 25 years that the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been cancelled.

NOAA said Friday the emergency closure would not "address the low abundance and declining trend of mature female Bristol Bay red king crab."

"The immediate benefits of emergency rulemaking in this case do not outweigh the value of advance notice, public comment, and deliberative consideration of the impacts on participants under the normal rulemaking process," the agency explained.

The agency made the decision following the North Pacific Fishery Management Council's (NPFMC) determination last December to not go forward with the emergency rule that would have prohibited pollock, Pacific cod and other fishing in 2023 in important Alaska red king crab Bering Sea habitats.

Crabbers point to pollock harm

Jamie Goen, executive director for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, criticized the decision as putting economic interests over conservation.

"Crabbers are dismayed and deeply disappointed that NOAA Fisheries denied protections for dwindling crab stocks on the same day they opened pollock fisheries with increased harvest limits and no additional crab or habitat protections," Goen said.

She pointed to pollock fishery gear impacting important areas for crab molting and mating, a point that was also previously made by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, a federally recognized Indian tribe located on the Pribilof Islands, in its testimony to the NPFMC in support of the closure.

"Pelagic trawl nets contact the seafloor anywhere from 40-100 percent of the time, a much higher amount than what has historically been commonly understood," Aleut Community of St. Paul Island President Amos Philemonoff said.

NOAA said, however, it remains concerned with the ongoing impacts of the low crab abundance in Alaska on crab fishermen and communities.

Direct losses from harvest cancellations this year amount to $287.7 million (€265 million), according to NOAA.

"Total losses for crab dependent harvesters, processors, communities, and support businesses likely far exceed this loss in ex-vessel value, the price received by fishermen for their catch," the government agency said.

"We remain committed to working with the council and stakeholders to develop and examine management measures to build more resiliency for Alaska’s crab fisheries."

NOAA Fisheries and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are in support of a cooperative research project proposed by Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers and the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation.

Focused on the Bristol Bay red king crab, it would use crabbers as research platforms in the Red King Crab Savings Area beginning in March 2023 to collect data that could help inform management decisions as early as fall 2023.